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Love Globally, Worship Locally: How to do church as members of one body

As those who led worship at the Reformed Ecumenical Council Assembly learned, global worship involves a lot more than tossing in a song from another country or culture. A feature story exploring Global Worship.

It was a wonderful opportunity-to plan and lead worship for the two-week Assembly of the Reformed Ecumenical Council in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Half the worship team members were college or seminary students, several of whom had never had the chance to meet so many pastors and church leaders from Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

In keeping with the conference theme, "I will be with you always," the team focused its first morning worship on how we as Christians derive our identity from the covenantal relationship between God and creation.

REC delegates gathered singing "Come All You People, come and praise your Maker." They used six languages to sing songs from many countries. Everyone recited the Apostles' Creed in their native language. During the parting song, people moved forward to dip their fingers in a well of water and remember God's promises.

Most Christians don't have the opportunities for travel that this team had. But what they learned about global worship can be applied in any congregation.

Step outside yourself

Seeing your congregation as part of the worldwide body of Christ may require re-thinking how your worship relates to local culture.

As John Witvliet explains in his introduction to Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present, most worship conflicts stem from church-and-culture relationships. That's why every Christian congregation must "decide how their worship can at once transcend, reflect, and critique culture in their local environment. Most churches are better at one of these postures than the others..

"The only way to gain perspective on how to achieve balance in being 'in, but not of' the world is somehow to step outside of our own world, to find a perspective from which to perceive the water in which we swim."

This rings true for Emily Brink, who says that REC delegates in her workshops on worship were most interested in cultural issues. Young denominations in Asia and Africa struggle with what to retain or reject in worship-often out of respect for North American or European missionaries who brought them the gospel.

Dutch Reformed missionaries taught Indonesians to sing Genevan Psalms in unison, accompanied by an organ. Indonesian Christians discuss whether it's okay to include a gamelan orchestra in worship. Indigenous religions believe these traditional gongs, drums, and bells have supernatural powers. So can Christians redeem this music?

"The role of drumming, percussion, or dance in worship is a continual issue in some churches. People often felt freer in our Assembly worship services to do things they had not done in their home churches," Brink says.

Meanwhile, several people commented on the syncretism they observe between faith and North American culture. They asked whether North American Christians worship the god of technology when they depend so heavily on microphones and projected images.

Visiting churches in the Netherlands, including immigrant congregations in Rotterdam, gave REC participants more chances to sort out how culture helps or hinders identity and unity in Christ.

An Assembly service on suffering drove home the call to discard comfortable habits and views for Christ's sake. People received a head of grain as they entered. During a (very slow) reading of Romans 6:3-5 and John 12:25-26, worshipers "planted" their grain around a cross sunk in a huge planter. "It felt important to symbolize our dying and rising with Christ. Anything tactile like that speaks across cultures," Brink says.

Shift your lenses

Living together for two weeks changed how REC participants viewed each other. Entertaining each other on "cultural night" showed that not all white people are stiff, not all Africans love to dance, and many cultures can identify with the same song.

On culture night, Chris Fenner, a music minister from Michigan, led the worship team in singing an African American favorite, "Victory is Mine." Indonesians immediately jumped up and sang the same song in their language.

Worship team member Rachel Klompmaker says that even though the Assembly was conducted in English, her native language, that was a second language for most participants and she was an ethnic minority.

"Learning to put aside awkward English and different cultural customs tweaked the lens through which I see others. The men and women at the REC Assembly represent 'my' Reformed church and are clearly working for the same kingdom. These leaders in their churches are very friendly, hospitable, and even funny.

"Experiencing the global span of the church opened my eyes and heart to those who have traveled around the world to study at Calvin Seminary. Now I want to get to know the international students in my classes. I want to know what's going on in their home churches and what quirky Western things make them smile or frustrate them," Klompmaker says.

Such observations were music to Anne Zaki, who says she felt responsible for helping worship team students process their immersion in the church universal. Zaki grew up in Cairo, Egypt, where her Presbyterian church had annual sister-church exchanges with churches in the Netherlands, Scotland, and the U.S. Her father, a pastor and seminary professor, developed friendships with students from all over the Middle East.

"I've traveled extensively since leaving Egypt at age 16. In most places, I've been worshiping (publicly) in a language other than my own since then. That alone is a constant reminder of the breadth of the church and God's reign," Zaki says.

As worship team students listened deeply to other delegates, recognized common struggles, and discerned the forms those struggles take in various cultures, Zaki says she could see them "switch from cultural fascination lenses to biblical lenses, letting Jesus define our words and reality."

Open your heart

One morning, worshipers sang Jorge Lockward's prayer "Perdón, Señor/Forgive Us, Lord": "For all the world's injustice, Perdón, Señor. For all of our indifference, Perdón, Señor .."    

By then the worship team had been eating, living, and talking with Reformed Christians from vastly different contexts. They'd heard about the 14 people denied visas to attend the assembly. They'd learned from Winston Kawale, REC vice president, that in Malawi, AIDS has orphaned a tenth of the country's 20 million people. In Swaziland, 43 percent of people have AIDS.

Between supper and evening worship, Emily Brink went into the chapel to find quiet. "In came one student, then more. At dinner they had talked over their conversations and experiences, and decided to come together for prayer. Almost all of us were there, sitting on the floor. We prayed and sang quietly for more than 30 minutes, praying for the people we met, for their countries, for their situations-so much conflict, pain, and hunger. It was a beautiful time together," Brink recalls.

Joel Navarro has traveled the world to lecture, sing, and conduct choirs. When he taught at Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music, Navarro worshiped daily with people from a dozen countries. Yet the stories of suffering he heard from REC delegates reminded him anew that problems in other countries become our problems as well-if we see ourselves as one in Christ.

Navarro, Brink, Paul Ryan, and other older worship team members say worshiping globally means more than occasionally including a song from another land. Instead worship planners must teach worshipers how to pray authentically. Ryan says cross-cultural worship is not authentic unless worshipers engage in relationships with other cultures.

Even when you can't meet in person, you can still engage with Christians across time and space. Brink advises learning about the song's roots, so you can be sensitive to the song's original instrumentation and pace. "If the song was born of suffering, you should mention that suffering and use it as an occasion for prayer," she adds.

When you introduce a song from Zimbabwe-say "Come All You People/Uyai Mose" or "If You and I Believe in Christ"-you could explain how Christians there find hope and joy in faith despite great injustice.  

"Come, Praise God! Sing Hallelujah!" was composed and written by Subronto Kusumo Atmodjo (1929-1982), who, because he had studied in Germany, was suspected of being a communist and imprisoned. He became a Christian in prison. "His testimony is such an encouragement to persecuted Christians in Indonesia . The song is placed first in an Indonesian ecumenical hymnal and also appears in Sing! A New Creation," Brink says.

Many hymns have been written out of suffering. As plague swept Germany during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart presided over as many as 50 funerals a day, including his wife's funeral. Yet he was able to write "Now Thank We All Our God."

Ask for help; embrace discomfort

It can be hard to sing, pray, present an offering, or do other worship actions the way Christians elsewhere do. Rich van Houten, REC executive secretary, has worshiped with congregations around the world. "When I have successfully fallen in with another group's worship style, it has come with repeated exposure. If enough people are comfortable doing a dance or song, it's easy to flow along," he says.

Worshiping globally is a process. Van Houten suggests, "Try new songs. Add different instruments. Move around a little. Most importantly, invite foreigners to help you worship. Sit at someone's feet, and try to fit in with what they do."

Trying something new, especially if it involves unfamiliar movement, may look or feel lame. But these stretching experiences are worth repeating, Joel Navarro believes. He says it's a widely-held misconception that songs from other lands cannot by faithfully duplicated by one culture.

Navarro returned from the REC Assembly resolved to help his Calvin College music students and choirs "think, feel, and understand creation from the eyes and ears of someone from Asia, Africa, South America, or the Middle East.

"My persuasion is that it is not so much in the product, but in the process of accommodation and hospitality that we will all be held accountable. If we say we want to be hospitable to a stranger, or a culture, how far are we willing to go?" Navarro asks.

He encourages liturgists, musicians, and pastoral staff to keep providing opportunities for global worship, until the congregation moves beyond passivity or fear to wholeheartedly "embrace and value global Christiani ties .rather than just one monocultural interpretation of Christianity."

Learn More

Learn more about the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) by checking out its archives. Browse daily reports, Bible studies, conference theme songs (coming soon), and worship recommendations from the Assembly.

Read about the first sacred music conference at Union Church of the Manila in the Philippines. Joel Navarro, a music professor at Calvin College, organized the conference and used it to introduce participants to songs, prayers, and liturgies from many countries.

Download Bibles in many languages. Read reports and books about worship worldwide, including and The Sunday Service of the Methodists: Twentieth-Century Worship in Worldwide Methodism, edited by Karen B. Westerfield Tucker.

Introduce your congregation to songs of love and anger, collected from around the world by the Iona Community and offered as sheet music through GIA Publications.

Read related stories about global musicdrumming in worship, psalm singing in Eastern EuropeReformed churches worldwide, and Christians in Mexico and the Philippines

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church council, worship, music, or education committee meeting. These questions will get members talking:

  • Consider the prayers, song introductions, offering announcements, or other worship service points at which you speak of people outside your congregation (such as AIDS victims or Hurricane Katrina evacuees). Do you frame it more as an us-and-them or brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ relationship?
  • Which parts of your services reflect your national culture or subculture? In what ways do these cultural reflections help or hinder your worship and outreach?
  • How often do your music leaders share the stories behind the songs and hymns you sing in church? What would you gain by including this? How might you start introducing these song origins?
  • What formal or informal ways help your church welcome worshipers from other cultures? What enrichment are you missing out on if your church is monocultural? What steps could you take to being more inclusive? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers see themselves as part of a worldwide body of Christ?

  • What are the best ways your congregation has found to help members "step outside" of your culture to gain a new perspective? Have you visited other churches.asked Christians from other countries to critique or participate in your worship planning.formed a sister church relationship?
  • Did you formalize an ecclesiastical tithe program, so members regularly visit churches very different than yours and then report on insights from those worship services?
  • Have you discovered principles for helping staid congregations feel more free in adding movement to the way they worship?